The Nizkor Project

50 Years of Silence

History and Voices
of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria

Personal Testimony:
Tatyana Gutman

Tatyana Gutman (Greenberg) was born in 1929, in the city of Moghilev Podolsk, in the South-Western Ukraine, which was called "Transnistria" between 1941-1944. She was the youngest of four siblings, raised by a widowed mother. In 1941, the invasion of the Ukraine by the Axis Forces marked the end of the quiet life of her family. The Greenberg family spent the war in that area. After the war, they moved to St. Petersburg, where Tatyana graduated from university and became an anchor-woman for a national television station.

The following are excerpts from Tatyana's war memoirs.

In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human.

The Fugitive

By Tatyana Gutman

Translated from Russian by Felicia (Steigman) Carmelly

Moghilev Podolsk, the city where I was born, was a city on the border between the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. The border between them was the River Dniester.

My maiden name is Greenberg. My family lived on the outskirts of the city, across from a train station. Our house had three rooms, one for my parents, one for my three brothers, Mark, Sioma and Elia, and one for me. I was the youngest. We were a middle-class family. My father was an accountant for a produce cooperative, and my mother was a housewife. I had a happy childhood. It was most important for my parents to provide a good education for their children, and my brothers and I loved school. We were excellent students. My mother was especially proud of us because, as a young girl, she had to forego her own studies to help in raising her nine siblings.

In 1936, tragedy struck our family. My father caught pneumonia and became very ill. After much suffering, he died in 1939, and left my mother a widow with four children. After his death, my mother called us all together to discuss how we could sustain the family financially. My two older brothers, Mark and Sioma, wanted to continue their education in order to be in a better position to help the family when they graduated from university. Mother agreed to their plan since education in the Soviet Union was free. Mark and Sioma left Moghilev to attend universities in other cities, and my mother supported my youngest brother, Elia, and myself by renting out rooms in our house.

We never experienced anti-Semitism before the war.

In 1941, the Germans invaded Moghilev, and the city turned into a war zone.

There were two bridges across the Dniester River. One was for trains and the other for pedestrians. Army units, trucks, half-trucks, motorcycles, horses, and furtive refugees crossed these bridges by day and by night. Because we lived so close to the train station, we were constantly subjected to the shrill sounds of trains grinding, Germans shouting, and dogs barking. Bombs rained all around us. I watched as our neighbours and their houses were destroyed in mere seconds. At the same time, my family became aware that some of the townspeople were turning against us. Many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis because they always aspired for independence from the Soviet Union. They believed the Nazi propaganda accusing the Jews of being Soviet spies and agitators. We were very frightened of the consequences of this development.

It was not long before my mother decided that we should flee deeper into Soviet territory to escape the Germans. She believed we would be safer there. We packed clothes, blankets and some non-perishable food, the strictest necessities, and boarded the only train available, a freight train. All passenger trains had been requisitioned by the Germans for their war effort. However, when our train arrived in Copaigorod, we were told that it would not continue to its original destination because the Germans had already surrounded this town.

Luckily, an elderly aunt and uncle lived in Copaigorod and we found shelter with them. They were a pious couple. My uncle prayed several times a day, and he owned many Hebrew books, even a Torah Scroll which he treasured. No sooner did we get to our relatives' home, when the Germans marched into town. They shot anyone they came into contact with, even pigs and horses. I was terrified.

As soon as the town was occupied, the Germans rounded up fifteen Jewish elders, loaded them onto a truck, and drove off. No one ever saw them again. Some people said they had been shot by the river, a few kilometres away from the town, but their bodies were never found. Then, the Germans started going from house to house, plundering and taking whatever they wanted. They mostly demanded "Gelt und Gold" (German: money and gold). We were trapped in Copaigorod, and things were no better than they were in Moghilev before we fled. We felt that we would be better off if we returned home where we had friends. We hoped to find our house still standing.

In the meantime, we met another family from Moghilev, a mother, grandmother and two daughters, Ludmila and Klara. They too wanted to go home, so the seven of us prepared to make our way back to Moghilev on foot. We walked only at night, and only through the fields, so that we would not be seen. At dawn, we stopped at a farm. It belonged to a Ukrainian family, friends of my mother. They fed us, gave us shelter, and allowed us to rest. That night, we continued our journey. The next morning, we arrived in Luchinetz, a small town about thirty kilometres east of Moghilev. We had some relatives there, but when we got to their house, we found that it was already crowded with other refugees. There were lice and bedbugs everywhere, the people were dirty and had no food.

Across the street from our relatives, lived the Gutman family. I befriended their son, who was about my age. I did not know then that he would, one day, become my husband.

On market day, when farmers brought their produce to be sold, some of them would go by horse and wagon to the market in Moghilev. When they returned, we found out from them what was happening there. They told us that Jewish homes were being plundered, and that many Jews were being killed. We considered remaining in Luchinetz, but mother could not find work in this town, and our relatives had barely enough food for themselves. Therefore, she decided that it would be better if we returned home to Moghilev. She decided to take my brother with her and find out if our house was still standing. I would remain in Luchinetz until they returned for me.

When my mother and brother arrived in Moghilev, they found our house occupied by a Ukrainian family, who had appropriated our belongings. Misha Slobodoniuk, the head of this family, was a shoemaker. He had made his workshop in one room, and his family lived in the others. Misha promised my mother that he would let us live in one of the rooms in our house. Reassured that she would have a place for her family in Moghilev, she returned and brought me home. We had no furniture in our room (we used to have such nice furniture) and none of the necessities to make it liveable. Shortly, neighbours brought us pillows, chairs, dishes and even food, and we were able to adapt to living in just one room of our former house.

Many restrictions were imposed on the Jews in Moghilev, deportees and locals alike. We were not allowed to attend school, or go to work, and we had to wear a white band with a blue Star of David on our sleeve. In short, we were outcasts. How I envied my former classmates, when September came and school started; they attended classes every day. As far as I was concerned, not only could I not go to school, but also my former friends made fun of me, even though I used to be the best student in my class. This injustice had a very negative effect on me. I felt belittled, frightened and confused. The only saving grace was that Misha, the shoemaker, who now lived in our house, was interested in literature. To appease my longing for school, I would sit and read to him for hours while he was fixing shoes. He was always good to us.

By September, 1941, masses of people were driven across the two bridges in Moghilev: children, adults, old people, sick and crippled people, all in rags, tired, hungry and scared. We soon learned that these were Jews from the ghettos and camps of Bessarabia, who were being taken to some big empty warehouses, and crowded in by the thousands. Later, came the deportees from Bucovina; they too were in a terrible state. Many of them begged us locals, to let them stay in a room, a corner of a room, anywhere, just to get out of the warehouses, where many of the older people and children were dying every day. Those who survived were told they would be driven on foot further into the many towns and villages of occupied Ukraine.

My mother was a charitable and courageous woman, always helping when she could. She started looking for places where some of the deportees could live. It was very dangerous for her to sneak in and out of these overcrowded warehouses. The gendarmes could have killed her. She always came home broken- hearted from what she had seen there. We begged her to stop going. We were afraid that she would be caught, and then we would have no one to take care of us. Still, she continued.

Meantime, Misha started coming home with all kinds of suitcases containing fancy clothing and jewellery. After a while, mother found out that he would stand at the bottom of a hill, where deportees were driven by, and offer to carry their suitcases up the hill for a small sum of money. But, as soon as he had the suitcases in his hands, he would quickly run off with them and bring them home. There was nothing those poor people who he stole from could do about it. The escorting gendarmes merely laughed and applauded Misha for his "initiative".

After a while, new events developed. Several of Misha's friends managed to persuaded his wife that she should not be living with Jews in the same house. She soon convinced Misha to move out. There were plenty of empty Jewish homes available to them. With the money they got from selling the goods he had stolen from the deportees they were in a position to rent any apartment and buy anything they wanted.

After they moved, mother decided to take in some of the deportees. She gave one room to a family from Chernovitz, the Morgensterns. This couple had three children, two girls and a boy, and a father-in-law. She gave another room to three single women, one of whom, I believe, was from Dorna Vatra or Vatra Dorna. I do not remember where the other two women were from. The third room was given to a young couple and the wife's parents. My mother, brother and I lived in the kitchen. There was nothing to eat, everybody was depressed and frightened, and we all worried about what would become of us.

One day, Mr. Biener, one of the deportees came to us and said that he had heard that our mother was an excellent cook and pastry maker. He was a wonderful and very practical man. He proposed to bring us bags of flour, God only knows where and how he got them, so that my mother could bake bread in our very large oven. Mother could bake enough bread for all of us to eat, and there would still be some left to sell. My mother agreed, and we started baking. This was hard work, but we had bread! When Mr. Biener brought his wife to visit, she would always behave like a "lady". She constantly filed her nails, and snubed us for being so poor. Apparently, she had come from a very wealthy family and, so far, her husband managed to provide what she needed. The "bread-baking business" worked so well that soon Mr. Biener introduced us to Mr. Schlomovitch, a baker from Romania, to help increase "production". We started working together. Mother worked so hard during this time, that she lost a lot of weight. Soon she weighed only forty-five kilos, but at least we had bread!

One time in the middle of the night, we heard loud pounding on our door. Mother opened and discovered that it was Ida, one of her girlfriends who lived in the nearby village of Yarshev. Ida told us that all the Jews from Yarshev had been gathered in the city square and shot. Only she and two of her cousins had managed to escape by hiding in the forest. I was in a terrible state of shock from her telling us details about that massacre; for three days I could not eat, I felt like my stomach was in a cramp. Since there was no more room in our house, Ida stayed with us until mother was able to find a place for her to live.

Very early one Saturday morning, we heard a desperate hammering at our door. Mother opened it and saw before her a big man splattered with mud and with deep bleeding gashes on his face. His hands were raw with wounds, and blood was seeping from the gouges in his flesh. The man spoke Yiddish (Jewish). He said that he had gone to many doors looking for shelter, but no one would take him in. Finally, someone had told him to try my mother's house, since she was known as a very compassionate woman. Of course, mother took him in. His name was Grisha.

On Sunday, market day, mother went to exchange bread for beans and beets. At the market she heard that there was a dangerous criminal on the loose, who had escaped from the jail in Yarshev. The description of the man matched Grisha perfectly. When mother came home, she immediately confronted him. He did not attempt to deny anything and proceeded to tell us his story.

He said that he was from Kamenetz Podolsk, a city about forty-five kilometres west of Moghilev, where all the Jews were killed, including his wife and children. During the massacres, he managed to hide in the attic of his house, from where he witnessed the shooting of the Jews from his town. When the massacre had ended, the Germans started going from house to house, searching in cellars and attics, rounding up any Jews found hiding. Grisha was found by an SS woman; she had a vicious Doberman dog with her. When the dog sniffed him out, it growled and snarled at him. Grisha grabbed its head and, with all the strength he could muster, he tore the dog's jaws apart. The howling of the animal brought the SS woman into the attic. Grisha leaped at her, grabbed the throat and strangled her to death. Then, he ran into the woods.

While walking in the forest, he met Mila, a twenty-two- year-old girl, who had escaped from one of the death camps. Together, they trekked through the woods for many hours until they reached the village of Yarshev. There, they were apprehended by a policeman. During his interrogation, they denied that they were Jewish, but since they had no identification, they were taken to the gendarmerie and held overnight. Fortunately, the only night guard on duty kept dozing, on and off, so Grisha made an escape plan. During one of the guard's naps, he instructed Mila to use the latrine, which was behind the building, and to take off. He would then take care of the guard, run off and meet her at the edge of the forest.

However, when Grisha tried to run away, the guard caught him. A fight ensued and Grisha had no choice but to hit the guard on the head with an iron bar, which he had kept hidden under his coat. Then, he ran into the forest. Unfortunately, Mila was not at the designated meeting place and he proceeded alone through the woods to Moghilev. This was when he was directed to our house.

Grisha stayed with us for a few months. His wounds were healing and he got his clothes cleaned. He was a gentle, intelligent man, whom I affectionately called "uncle Grisha". He taught me many things, and told me stories about his life. We would also discuss politics. I loved spending time with him. However, the awareness that he had killed two people, even though it was to protect his own life, always preyed on my mind and maintained a distance between us.

In March 1944, the Germans started to withdraw. Yet, the plundering of the homes that were still left, and the raping of women did not stop. The soldiers were dirty, tired, and very nervous. As we lived near the train station, we saw scores of wounded soldiers in torn uniforms, loading whatever they could put their hands on into the trains.

Throughout the war, we lived in fear and terror, day and night. When the Soviets approached, we were even more terrified. We had been told that before the Germans withdrew, they would kill all the remaining Jews. We prepared underground shelters not knowing what would happen from one moment to the next.

On March 17, 1944, the bridge over the Dniester was blown up. The explosion rocked the entire city. Rumours circulated that the Germans did that, others suggested that it was the partisans. We never found out the truth. Finally, on March 19,1944, we were liberated. The Soviets marched into Moghilev, and soon everyone tried to return to some semblance of normal life. The deportees who survived started making plans to return to their homes in Bessarabia and Bucovina; we, the local Ukrainian Jews, hoped that life in the Ukraine would become more stable.

However, the post-war political atmosphere in the former Soviet Union was quite dangerous for us. When officials found out that we had survived the Nazi occupation, they frequently accused us of having been collaborators. "How else could you have survived?" they asked us. As a result of this attitude, we did not talk to anyone about what had happened to us during the war. This subject became a taboo. In many cases, people made every effort to obtain new identity papers, in which they changed their names, place of birth, and even their date of birth in order to avoid these accusations. Many people thus denied their roots and disowned parts of their lives and heritage.

For many years, I have tried to put the memories of the war behind me. But now, I have finally accepted the fact that I will never be able to erase them from my mind. Although I find that reliving my war memories causes me further trauma and saps my energy, in the long term, putting some of my war memoirs in writing has also helped to relieve some of my pain.

In addition, I feel that it is important to let the world know how we lived through the war, even though, to us, the local Ukrainian Jews, this was our own home. We had never even heard of the name "Transnistria".

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